No, Bruno Mars Is Not Appropriating Black Culture

Bruno Mars became a Twitter trending topic of discussion on Friday morning (Mar. 9) after a video by a commentary site, The Grapevine surfaced, addressing one sole question: “Is Bruno Mars a cultural appropriator?”

In part one of the two-part video (view below), activist and cultural critic Seren Sensei points out how the 32-year-old Grammy Award winner is an appropriator who “is not black” and has not contributed to the music industry in the way that music legends Michael Jackson and Prince have.

“Bruno Mars 100 percent is a cultural appropriator. He is racially ambiguous. He is not black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity […] to cross genres,” argues the writer after Mars is compared to Michael Jackson earlier in the discussion.

She continues: “Bruno Mars is not an original artist in the same way that Michael Jackson was an original artist and the same way that Prince was an original artist. What Bruno Mars does, is he takes pre-existing work and he just completely, word-for-word recreates it, extrapolates it.”

“He does not change it, he does not improve upon it, he does not make it better,” she argues. “He’s a karaoke singer, he’s a wedding singer, he’s the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers. Yet Bruno Mars has an Album of the Year Grammy and Prince never won an Album of the Year Grammy…Bruno Mars got that Grammy ’cause white people love him. He’s not black, period.”

With many Twitter users joining the conversation (whether in agreement and in opposition of Sensei’s views), two VIBE writers break down why Mars’ success shouldn’t be discredited and why we can’t strip him of his right to pull from his greatest musical influences, even if it comes off as “cultural appropriation” at face value. —Christine Imarenezor

Celebrate Black Music Appreciation

Webster’s Dictionary defines appropriation as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission,” and Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

As someone who has been here for Bruno Mars’s success, basically since he exploded onto the scene back in 2009, I find the argument that he’s “appropriating” black music to be so stale and stagnant at this point, that it’s almost painful for me to have to write out my feelings on the matter. He has always paid the utmost respect, appreciation and homage to the musicians who have come before him and influenced his sound, which always featured the sounds closely associated and helmed as “black music.”

In a 2017 interview with Latina, Mars shared how as a child raised in the 1990s, black musicians ranging from Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston, Babyface to Diddy were paramount to his appreciation of music growing up. Coming from a musical family of his own, he was introduced to a diverse mix of music since he was a child. He noted in a 2011 interview he was inspired to play the guitar after watching Jimi Hendrix, and that he grew up looking up to performers with “raw talent” who could rock the party.

As a young woman pointed out near the beginning of the now viral-video, Mars started off doing “doo-wop, pop and R&B” through his earlier efforts, as found in his debut album Doo-Wops and Hooligans, and evolved to exploring hip-hop, New Jack Swing and ’90s-heavy R&B. She’s right in that respect. However, the early gamut of black popular music includes, but is not limited to, genres such as rock, blues, country, jazz, funk, doo-wop (which was started in the ’30s and ’40s by black musicians) and the Motown era.

Mars has been exploring and paying homage to the different avenues of black music virtually out of the gate. Tracks like “Our First Time,” “Liquor Store Blues” (featuring Damian Marley) and “Runaway Baby” from his first album are perfect examples of Mars’ ability and willingness to traverse and pay homage to black music. Additionally, Mars’ sophomore album Unorthodox Jukebox features songs like the bedroom-ready R&B track “Gorilla,” the reggae-heavy “Show Me,” and the disco-tinged “Treasure.”

If you can recall, Mars honored the influences of his Grammy Award-winning album 24K Magic during his Album Of The Year acceptance speech. Mars pointed out how the album “wouldn’t exist” if not for the early work of R&B icons Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley and Babyface, who worked directly with Mars for the 2016 LP. Previously, Mars has worked with black musicians and songwriters such as James Fauntelroy, Khalil Walton, Claude Kelly and K’naan to help curate the different sounds and styles he’s given us through the years.

A young woman also argued that people “prefer” black music and black culture when it doesn’t come from a black person. While Bruno isn’t seen a black person in the world, he’s true to his musical upbringing, which is heavily rooted in music created by and popularized by black people. That hasn’t changed since day one, and it probably won’t change any time soon. There’s a glaring difference between the definitions of “appropriation” and “appreciation,” (as another participant pointed out in the discussion) and if you’re still a bit iffy on their distinctions, think long and hard about Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus. You’ll understand in due time. —J’na Jefferson


Blackness Is Global

As someone who’s never been so moved to actually purchase a Bruno Mars album, much less sit down and digest a whole discography, let me start off by saying that in no room is Bruno Mars a white person. Given his Puerto Rican and Filipino ancestry – both of which have African roots (in fact, the indigenous peoples of the Philippines have historically been referred to as “negritos,” which is not to negate the fact there indeed exist such a thing as white passing Puerto Ricans and Filipinos) – one could argue Bruno’s artistry pulls from intrinsic knowledge and influence.

But the fact remains that black culture has always been more desirable thusly marketable, despite the global and historical hate and maltreatment of black people. So yes, white people will absolutely buy into, celebrate and exalt that which they do not actually have (culture) at the expense of black (and brown) art and livelihoods. This is nothing new, which is something the young lady in question suggests as she highlights hip-hop surpassing rock as the most consumed genre in the U.S. It’s the machine you want to rage against here, not Bruno, who has time and again paid homage to his biggest influences: black artists and black music.

The argument in question is skewed in such a way that it is contingent on ahistorical context. Her allusion that Bruno Mars is loved beyond the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson is pretty ridiculous. Her justification lies in the fact that Bruno Mars is a Grammys recipient in the category of Album of the Year — and Prince, what, died without such a trophy? The gag is, our beloved “Purple One” never sought white validation. He never subscribed to the industry hierarchy. He was staunchly against all that would turn his work into commercial fodder. I’m utterly perplexed at the idea that Prince and Michael Jackson were unsung heroes of any kind. Not to mention, records show MJ and Prince combined have awards and honors of monumental proportions, if we’re talking cash money.

Apart from the Prince-MJ comparison, one of the main issues I find with the kind of rhetoric being offered in the fishbowl discussion in question is that it resonates as the perpetuance or definition of blackness as being monolithic; the idea that black, i.e. African culture is the same around the world as it is in the United States (that’s why Wakanda don’t even want you), a country that operates on the black-and-white binary and typically reserves the black experience for “African Americans.”

Which brings me to my next point: Bruno Mars was often told to “just do Latin music” simply because his last name is Hernandez. That statement alone breeds worlds of frustration. By Latin (which is Eurocentric in disposition, as is Hispanic, in comparison to today’s Latinx or your native motherland) do you mean Spanish-language music? By Latin, do you mean salsa, reggaeton, tropical music? Newsflash: Because you have a “Latin” last name doesn’t mean you actually speak Spanish, or that you are actually of Latino descent. Not to mention – the point I am trying to make – suggesting that Bruno Mars should do “Spanish” music as opposed to anything else, lends to the erasure of afro- or black people from Spanish-speaking worlds — like in Puerto Rico. —Marjua Estevez

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